Florida’s Department of Education has ordered all “brick and mortar schools” in the state to reopen next month despite growing concerns about rising coronavirus cases.
Schools must offer instruction at least five days a week to all students who want it and provide a “full array of services,” including services for English-language learners and disabled students, according to the order. Districts will still be allowed to offer remote learning for families who choose it, but the requirements for such programs are much more rigid than they were in the spring.
“Education is critical to the success of the state and to an individual, and extended school closures can impede the educational success of students, impact families’ well-being and limit many parents and guardians from returning to work,” the order says. It adds that schools can remain closed if local health officials deem them unsafe for in-person instruction.
The order comes as school districts throughout the state, and the country, plan for an unprecedented fall semester. On Monday, officials at Miami-Dade County Public Schools presented three plans for fall classes, including an all-online slate, in-person classes, and a mixed-delivery model. In Sarasota, officials were discussing a plan to begin the year online and open schools to students after Labor Day. In Manatee County, officials wanted to reduce school capacity by having students attend in person part of the week and online the rest of the week. Neither plan meets the requirements of the new order.
The Florida plan is drawing criticism from some who say the decision should be left to local officials. Teachers are also frightened. “It’s clear in communications with our members that educators are scared,” Florida Education Association president Fedrick Ingram told the News Service of Florida. “They don’t trust politicians to make sure things are safe — rightly so, with the record-breaking number of cases being reported.”
Indeed, the trajectory of the coronavirus outbreak in Florida raises serious questions about the decision-making of leaders in Tallahassee. On Monday, a day that saw Florida add another 6,336 coronavirus cases to its already eye-popping total, Governor Ron DeSantis downplayed the spread of the virus in the state. “It’s basically been the same,’’ he said of the outbreak, attributing the growing number of cases to increased testing.
Criticism from teachers and local officials aside, there’s little doubt that in-person instruction is better for children than remote learning. Last week, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued guidelines recommending that students be “physically present in school” as much as possible in the fall. “Schools are fundamental to child and adolescent development and well-being and provide our children and adolescents with academic instruction, social and emotional skills, safety, reliable nutrition, physical/speech and mental health therapy, and opportunities for physical activity, among other benefits,” the guidelines say.
The Florida order didn’t just focus on the benefits to children though. It also said opening schools fully is the only way to ensure Florida hits “its full economic stride.”